The Fool’s Cap Map of the World

A Cartographical Oddity, A Mascot for this Blog

This startling and disturbing image is one of the enigmas of cartographic history. The artist, date and place of publication are all unknown, and one can only guess at its purpose. The geography of the map strongly resembles that of the world maps of Ortelius published in the 1580s, giving a tentative date of c. 1590. This is the earliest known use of the world map in a visual joke. Its central visual metaphor is the universality of human folly and various mottoes around the map reinforce that theme. The panel of the left says: “Democritus laughed at it [i.e. the world], Heraclitus wept over it, Epichtonius Cosmopolites portrayed it.” Although Epichtonius Cosmopolites appears to be the author’s or artist’s name, it translates roughly as “Everyman,” leaving the mapmaker’s true identity hidden.

A strong legacy of the theme of the Fool exists in literature and popular art from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. The Fool was licensed to break rules, speak painful truths and mock power and pretension, and the grotesque shape he bore was a kind of living punishment. This frame of reference would have been quite familiar to the audience of this engraving in the 1590s. And people would have recognized in this map a radical visual interpretation of the Fool’s role: it is now the whole world that takes on the Fool’s costume.

Adapted from the book The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps by Peter Whitfield (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1995)

4 responses

  1. So, then, perhaps there is a twisted truth in Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates as a fool? (Is the “true” philosopher a fool?)

    • I guess I believe that there is. Socrates plays the fool in fairly obvious ways in the dialogues, or at least some of the interlocutors think of him that way (e.g., Euthydemus and Dionysidorus in the Euthydemus). But, for me, even more important is the idea of the fool for God, and of the way in which Socrates’ understanding of the Oracle commits him to hazard foolishness. Jaroslav Pelikan’s book is helpful here, Fools for Christ. In the book, Pelikan takes Kierkegaard to refuse any reduction of the holy (as a Transcendental) to the Good, or the True, or the Beautiful. I believe that something like that happens with Socrates too, although to understand it we have to leave the register of Christianity and move to a more pagan one. Socrates is on a mission from God, from Apollo. What that mission will require from him is something that Socrates is left to figure out, to work out over the succeeding years. But what will be required of him is piety, piousness; and he will have to be pious, even if that requires becoming foolish for its sake. (This is part of the point of putting the conversation of the Euthyphro immediately before the Apology). Socrates braves his fate because Apollo demands it. From the point of view of prudence, of his Greek friends (the Crito) foolishness, but for Socrates, the service of God, piety. Socrates is a fool for Apollo, his life an Apollonian, a divine comedy. –Thanks for the comment, Matt.

      • Thanks for the response. I’ve been thinking in my own work about something like this though indirectly–roughly, “the courage of conviction.” What you say about Socrates and the Euthyphro makes me recall a comment LW made (I think to Waismann) about the dialogue: that in his view God’s commanding it is more basic than it’s being good. This goes against the standard way of teaching about the Euthyphro–that the good is independent of god-lovedness (or a thing’s being commanded). (And the remark made in this vein that if God commanded rape, then we should think that God is not good.) Being a “fool for God,” then, I take it, means assuming that if God commands it, then it is good, even if one cannot understand this (or if others can’t). But this can of course be dangerous, too, and as Kierkegaard (or de Silentio) notes, we cannot distinguish between the knight of faith and the madman. But maybe that’s not entirely true, if we think about how the “madmen” of recent terrorist attacks seem, in important ways, to shut themselves off from others. Maybe this shutting out others is incompatible with what you mention as the task of trying to understand what one’s “mission” requires one to do? This is at least different from the way in which Socrates “plays the fool” since his mission involves a re-engagement with others…

      • As you know, these are big issues and I worry that I can say nothing here expansive enough to help with them. I don’t think of being a fool for God as a matter of being a Divine Command Theorist, but I don’t know that that is what you mean or, anyway, all that you mean. I think of being such a fool more as a matter of struggling to become more and more available, disposable to holiness. That is not a matter of response to commands—or at least it is not exhausted by that. And I also think that we need to remember that Socrates’ response to Apollo’s Oracle was not mute, immediate acceptance (i.e., it is not of the “He arose and went”-variety), but rather an entire puzzling life, a life dialectically shaped as an attempt to come to understand what it was that Apollo had said or commanded, what task he had set for Socrates. (Of course, the wording of the Oracle did not even have the outward form of an imperative, but rather of a declarative; so Socrates’ response to it is strikingly odd: why take it as a task at all?)

        One thing I take to be common to Socrates’ and the Christian’s point of view: holiness is a mystery; and revelation, manifesting holiness, is mysterious too. What the Gods say or God says is not something that responds, straightforwardly, to questions we ask or issues we want to understand. Revelation is prevenient to our questions or puzzles.

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